Deadly Side Effects: New Details Emerge in East German Drug Test Scandal

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Huburt Bruchmüller believes he might "be the only survivor" of clinical trials of a medication performed in 1989 in one East German clinic. Zoom
Harald Krieg/ Agentur Focus/ DER SPIEGEL

Huburt Bruchmüller believes he might "be the only survivor" of clinical trials of a medication performed in 1989 in one East German clinic.

Until the fall of the Wall, Western pharmaceutical companies conducted drug trials in East German hospitals. More than 50,000 patients served as subjects, often without their knowledge, and many died. The human experiments haven't been fully investigated to this day despite fresh evidence of wrongdoing.

Nicole Preiss was nine when her mother died in 1986. The woman had been stricken by skin cancer, which was deemed benign at first. But there was something, a strange remark, that little Nicole didn't understand. Why on earth, her stone-faced father and grandparents had asked at the time, did the doctors administer "drugs from the Berlin Westapotheke pharmacy " to her? And why did her condition worsen considerably after that?

Preiss, now 37, is still searching for answers today, still trying to understand what East German doctors did to her mother at a hospital in the city of Erfurt.

She suspects the doctors were testing a new drug from the West on their patient. "My mother's case was even presented in the lecture hall," says Preiss. But the treatment didn't do her any good. "There are too many secrets associated with her death, at the age of only 30," says her daughter, who is now seeking to finally gain access to the files and find answers to the questions of which drugs, which tests and which pharmaceutical companies played a role in her mother's death.

Some 50,000 Participated in Drug Tests

Preiss isn't the only one. Apparently at least 50,000 people in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, served as test subjects for the Western pharmaceutical industry, often unknowingly. Drug manufacturers, especially from West Germany, Switzerland and the United States, engaged GDR hospitals to perform more than 600 clinical drug trials, some with fatal consequences. This emerges from previously unknown documents, to which SPIEGEL has gained access, from the private archives of individual physicians, from the files of the former East German Health Ministry and the Ministry for State Security (Stasi), as well as the country's Institute for Drug Regulatory Affairs.

The East German institutions participating in the arrangement included internationally renowned university hospitals, like Charité Hospital in East Berlin, as well as more than 50 hospitals throughout the country, in such cities as Dresden, Erfurt, Halle, Jena and Rostock.

Virtually every major name in the pharmaceutical industry was involved, including Bayer, Schering, Hoechst, Boehringer, Pfizer, Sandoz and Roche. The companies administered everything produced in their research laboratories: chemotherapy drugs, antidepressants and heart medications, as well as other substances fresh from the laboratory, the effects of which were still largely unknown to scientists.

Human trials are among the darker chapters of the pharmaceutical industry's history. Medical progress has always claimed victims. But medical research becomes particularly dangerous to patients when efforts to benefit mankind are dominated by the quest for quick profits. When this happens, researchers overstep limits that should never be exceeded, jeopardizing the health and lives of people in the interest of improving a company's bottom line.

Today drug manufacturers depend on emerging economies like India, China and Russia when they want to test new drugs quickly and inexpensively. In the 1970s and 80s, though, the ideal testing ground was conveniently nearby: in East Germany.

The mechanism is similar today to the way it was back then. Many patients don't know what their doctors are prescribing to them, regulators in partner countries dispense with thorough testing to secure urgently needed hard currency or modern medical technology, and a critical public hardly exists at all.

The West's Responsibility

The human trials that were conducted in East Germany on behalf of West German firms still haven't been fully investigated, although Germany's current coalition government of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) will address the issue on Tuesday. The effort to come to terms with the former East German dictatorship should not consist solely of addressing the issues surrounding the country's notorious secret police, the Stasi, reads a motion for debate in the German parliament, the Bundestag. According to the motion, drug trials in East German hospitals demonstrate that "West German companies also profited," just as they did from forced labor in East German prisons. The lawmakers argue that, for this reason, "society and the scientific community should focus more heavily on" the West's responsibility.

But that is a responsibility that the former business partners have shirked until now. Hospitals are either unwilling to release their records on drug trials involving their patients or they have already destroyed them. This was Nicole Preiss's experience when she wanted to review her deceased mother's medical file, but she isn't the only one.

Pharmaceutical industry leaders are being especially uncooperative. The data from the clinical trials are stored in their archives, and if a number of industry executives have their way, that's where they will stay.

"I don't want to see these kinds of investigations here," says Ulrich Vorderwülbecke. He is the director of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (VFA) and has been working as a lobbyist for the last 30 years. "There have been no suspicions so far that something shady was going on," he adds. Vorderwülbecke suggests that an "outside authority," perhaps headed by the German Interior Ministry, should address the issue.

When individual companies are asked today about their former business practices in East Germany, they are suddenly overcome by amnesia. "Well, that was a long time ago," they typically respond. Employees who might be able to provide information on the issue, they say, are no longer employed there, deceased or suffering from dementia. Some companies refuse to talk to journalists altogether.

Recruiting the 'Class Enemy'

In the early 1980s, Fehrbelliner Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood of East Berlin at the time, was a stronghold of East German opposition. It was home to civil rights activists like Bärbel Bohley, the Catholic congregation of Wolfgang Thierse, who is now the deputy president of the Bundestag, and a rehearsal space used by punk bands like Rosa Extra and Feeling B, a few members of which later formed the metal band Rammstein.

Other residents began noticing unusual activities taking place at Fehrbelliner Strasse 5. "We had no idea what was going on there, but different cars with West German license plates were parked outside every day," recalls Carlo Jordan, a member of the opposition who later became one of the founders of the Green Party in East Berlin.

The civil rights activists had no way of knowing that the East German health ministry had rented an apartment in the dilapidated building in 1983, which was used as a contact point for Western managers. It was officially known as the "Advisory Office for Drugs and Medical Devices" (BBA). According to visitor logs, which read like a who's who of the Western medical industry, there were weeks when up to 40 pharmaceutical industry representatives came to the office.

"Now you too can become one of our customers." Those were the words with which Joachim Petzold, the head of the advisory office, recruited the drug manufacturers, from the West, otherwise known as the class enemy during GDR times, starting in 1983. It was a breakthrough: the institutionalization of a lucrative business relationship.

Up to 800,000 Deutsche Marks Per Study

First lobbyists for the likes of Bayer and Schering had to discreetly negotiate with their East German contacts over patient trials. To that end, marketing people from the West had been regularly traveling to the Leipzig Trade Fair since the 1970s, bringing along gifts for their hosts -- based on the requests, large and small, they had previously received from the heads of East German hospitals. Many of their wishes were fulfilled, not out of charity but for business reasons. The companies donated computers and other equipment, and they also invited East German doctors to attend lavish meetings in the West.

Starting in 1983, the Western companies were able to officially submit their offers to a central office. During their visits to Fehrbelliner Strasse, the pharmaceutical representatives offered the East Germans up to 800,000 deutsche marks per study. Petzold and his comrades at the Health Ministry drummed up the funds for their republic, raising millions for the struggling East German economy. Like a pimp, their government sold its sick citizens and prostituted the country as a laboratory for the West's clinical trials.

The dismal condition of the East German healthcare system was one reason that the Western customers had such an easy job of it. Although East German doctors went to great lengths to improvise as much as possible, citizens faced growing waiting lists for life-saving operations, there was a shortage of effective drugs and necessary treatments were not performed.

Even Ludwig Mecklinger, the then East German health minister, had no illusions. In office from 1971 to 1989, he was known for bluntly stating his position, albeit not openly.

In a 1983 meeting of top East German officials, Mecklinger outlined the extent of the dire problems facing the healthcare system. Mecklinger died in 1994, but according to documents from his archives, he feared "growing frustration within the population and among doctors" in light of the state of healthcare, and noted the East Germany had "fallen almost completely behind" international standards. The country was increasingly behind the curve in all key areas of diagnosis and treatment, Mecklinger wrote, adding that East Germany was inferior to West Germany when it came to mortality rates in almost all age groups in recent years.

Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, who consistently raised Western capital for the regime in convoluted ways, occasionally managed to come up with injections of funding for hospitals. They were then suddenly showered with gifts of disposable gloves and surgical materials, in the same way people in East Germany could briefly look forward to oranges and bananas during the Christmas season (fruits that were extremely difficult or impossible to get during other times of the year).

But his efforts were far from sufficient to rehabilitate the healthcare system. Mecklinger, Schalck-Golodkowski and a small group of experts discussed ways to address the problem. They knew that human trials were required before a drug could be approved, and they also knew that the West German Federal Health Ministry had tightened its requirements for these trials. After the thalidomide (sold under the brand name Contergan in Germany) scandal of the 1960s, the public had become far more critical in the West and was taking a more skeptical view of animal experiments and human trials.

The East German officials agreed that such problems would not arise in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). But they disagreed over how to distribute the hard currency they expected to raise. Schalck-Golodkowski initially wanted to see 60 percent of the proceeds paid to his Berliner Import & Export Gesellschaft (BIEG), whose profits went directly into the coffers of the then East German leader Erich Honecker. Mecklinger preferred to see the money invested in his backward hospitals. After 20 minutes, the meeting ended with Schalck-Golodkowski and Mecklinger agreeing to split the spoils evenly, paving the way for the advisory office in Prenzlauer Berg to begin its work.

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